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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Education Bill

Education Bill

Column Number: 357

Standing Committee G

Thursday 10 January 2002

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Education Bill

2.30 pm

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East): On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I do not want to upset those on the Opposition Front Bench. I realise that they were upset about not being able to discuss certain clauses in the previous sitting. If they look ahead to next week and want to spend any extra hours to get through business, we would be happy to accommodate them on Tuesday or Thursday evening, or even on Monday or Wednesday.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Further to that point of order, Mr. Pike. I fear that the Government Whip fails to understand the problem that he has caused. Because of so-called knives in our proceedings, we lost the opportunity to discuss 11 clauses on Tuesday, and a further four this morning. Those of us who believe that we come here to do a job, and do not want to accept public funds in our salaries under false pretences, are angry that we are not able to do that job properly. Regardless of how we plan ahead, we cannot know how the debate will pan out in practice. This morning was a case in point.

We arrived amicably at an agreement with the Government on the basis that we could deal with matters during the morning sitting. As it happened, through no fault of my own or my Conservative colleagues, who spoke little during the sitting, we had no chance to deal with most of the business on our timetable. The fact that the Government were not prepared to listen to our reasonable concern has now prevented us from considering those aspects of the Bill.

The Chairman: Both sides of the Committee have made their point. I hope that each side has taken note of the other's position, but we cannot turn the clock back as far as this morning is concerned. I have to apply the agreed procedures. I carried out the motion in accordance with what had been agreed previously in the House and in Committee. I hope that negotiations take place behind the scenes: the issues just raised are not points of order for the Chair.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I would like to make a slight correction, and a partial apology to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) about the information relating to the views of the Isle of Wight's local education authority on admission forums. Isle of Wight LEA requested approval to form such a forum on a voluntary basis, in advance of that being made statutory, because it is keen and convinced that it is the direction to take. It has not, however, asked to join

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another local authority in creating that forum, which slightly contradicts the position of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. I wanted to place that correction on the record.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) rose—

The Chairman: The Minister's point is not really a point of order. I will call the hon. Member for Isle of Wight in a moment, and he may respond to it when he speaks to the next amendment.

Clause 49

Exclusion of pupils

Mr. Turner: I beg to move amendment No. 145, in page 32, line 32, leave out subsection (1).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 148, in page 32, line 36, leave out from ''Regulations'' to end of line 1 on page 34, and insert:

    ''may make provision—

    (a) to allow a panel constituted in accordance with sections 64 to 68 of the School Standards and Framework Act to consider the interests of the whole school community;

    (b) that a defect in the procedure leading to exclusion shall not invalidate any decision made to exclude a pupil; and

    (c) to amend Schedule 18 to the School Standards and Framework Act to assist headteachers to maintain discipline in schools.''

No. 261, in page 33, line 5, at end insert:

    ''(e) as to matters to which an appeal panel constituted in accordance with the regulations shall have regard, including in particular the health, safety and welfare of persons employed to work at the school or pupil referral unit as the case may be and the protection of such persons from false and malicious allegations of misconduct.''

No. 262, in page 33, line 5, at end insert:

    ''(ee) as to the duties of local education authorities and/or governing bodies to make sufficient provision for any emotional and behavioural difficulties of any pupil to which this section relates.''

No. 341, in page 33, line 5, at end insert:

    ''(e) outlining specific circumstances in which an appeal panel can over-rule an exclusion''.

No. 117, in page 33, line 10, leave out ''any'' and insert ''the''.

No. 143, in page 198, line 19, leave out ''Sections 64 to 68''.

No. 144, in page 198, line 51, leave out ''to 18'' and insert ''to 17''.

Mr. Turner: I thank the Minister for his words. One of his hon. Friends was right to say that I was embarrassed to hear what he was saying this morning, but I am glad that what he was saying has not transpired.

Amendments Nos. 143 and 144 are significant because they would restore most of the clauses from the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which the Bill will otherwise remove. The Government accept the status quo and are saying, in effect, that it is better to have a clear status quo than to have shifting sands. In common with much of the Bill, the problem

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with what the Government propose on exclusions is that it presents schools with the danger of constant changes to the rules on exclusions.

The Government have done that because from time to time court cases and other proceedings decide that the law was not exactly as they thought it was. In some cases, the law was not as anyone thought it was until an especially enterprising lawyer came on the scene. I accepted that in amendment No. 148, which would insert the most recent set of reasons why the Government have proposed that the statutory regime should be more flexible. I accept that it is important that a panel that is constituted in accordance with the law should be able to take account of the interests of the whole school community. I also accept that a defect in procedure should not invalidate a decision to exclude a pupil, and that the Secretary of State should be able to make further amendments to the framework to assist head teachers to maintain discipline. I do not accept that the whole structure should be taken out of the law and put into regulation, which is what the Government are seeking to achieve.

Although it might appear to the contrary, amendment No. 145, which would delete clause 49(1), does not have the effect of preventing head teachers from excluding pupils, because amendment No. 148 would reinstate section 64(1) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. I will not trouble the Committee at great length, but we are all familiar with the question whether the framework should be in the Bill and the details should be in the regulations, or even whether little of the framework should be in the Bill and most of it in the regulations, which is what the Government seem to be proposing.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Am I right in thinking that I can speak to amendment No. 117 in this group, and that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has spoken to the other amendments?

The Chairman: The lead amendment was moved, but the others within the group are open to debate. Amendment No. 117 is within the group.

Mr. Willis: Is it in order for me to speak to it?

The Chairman: Yes.

Mr. Willis: I listened with interest to the comments of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. He raised an important issue of principle. If the Government do not want to include detail in the Bill—they made it clear that they want to leave as much as possible to secondary legislation—it is important that any advice and regulations are precise. By leaving out ''any'' and inserting ''the'', the amendment seeks clarification from the Government about their policy and the proposed regulations on exclusions.

After admissions, to which I will not return, the issue of exclusions is one of the most vexing areas for schools and parents. Parents often believe that their children have been treated badly, and heads and teachers often believe that they have been treated too

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leniently. It is crucial that guidance is precise so that both parties know exactly where they stand in cases of exclusion, particularly if a child has been excluded permanently. If we are to have regulations, they must be precise.

Mr. Brady: I rise to put the case in favour of my amendment and those of my hon. Friends. Amendment No. 261 would introduce an important protection for those who are at the heart of our education system: teachers and other employees working in schools. All members of the Committee will be familiar with cases over many years—the numbers seem to be increasing—of allegations made against school staff members. Sometimes they are completely unfounded. Perhaps of greatest concern are physical attacks made on teaching and non-teaching staff. The most difficult cases are those that not only call into question the conduct of a member of staff but suggest that if the action were to be repeated, there would be a serious possibility that the safety, health and—at the least—the professional standing of the member of staff and their ability to maintain discipline in the classroom may be undermined.

What I seek to do through amendment No. 261 is to ensure that certain elements are included in the regulations referred to in clause 49(3). Paragraph (a) states that regulations may require

    ''prescribed persons to be given prescribed information''.

Paragraph (b) requires

    ''the responsible body, in prescribed cases, to consider whether the pupil should be reinstated''.

Paragraph (c) requires

    ''the local education authority to make arrangements for enabling a prescribed person to appeal'',

and paragraph (d) sets out the procedure for such appeals.

2.45 pm

Amendment No. 261 would add a fifth paragraph, (e), that would allow the regulations to set out

    ''matters to which an appeal panel . . . shall have regard, including in particular the health, safety and welfare of persons employed to work at the school or pupil referral unit as the case may be and the protection of such persons from false and malicious allegations of misconduct.''

I shall take the two categories separately. First, it is self-evident that if an outstanding disciplinary matter involves, or appears to involve, a physical or other assault on a member of staff, the appeals body should be required to have regard to those circumstances in carrying out its functions. If a pupil who has made a physical or verbal assault, perhaps making grossly offensive remarks, is readmitted to the school by an appeal panel, it may have a serious effect on discipline in the school, in the classroom and, potentially, on the life, career and perhaps the mental state of a member of staff. The member of staff who suffered at the hands of a violent or abusive pupil may be forced to encounter that pupil again in the classroom, but even if they are not, the pupil and the teacher may encounter each other in the school, which may have serious consequences. It may lead to a repeat of an earlier

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problem and perhaps to a tit-for-tat conflict in which the parties may be drawn into reciprocal action, which would be regrettable.

If Ministers want to take seriously the health, safety and welfare of people in schools they will accept the amendment, which would be of major benefit to teaching and other school staff.

Secondly, allegations of physical or other abuse and other types of malicious and false allegations made by pupils against members of the teaching staff cause great anxiety to the teachers who are accused and to those who observe the effect of such allegations. Many teachers live in fear that they may be subject to a false and malicious allegation, which, given the nature of some allegations, may have consequences for their professional and personal lives. We can all imagine the effect of certain allegations on anyone living in a community—particularly if, like school staff, they occupy positions of trust and respect.

The problem has been a matter of growing concern and many people within the teaching profession would like it tackled more effectively. Amendment No. 261, in dealing with health and safety implications and providing protection against damage to reputation and career as well as physical wellbeing, would make a real contribution to improving the position of those who teach and work in our schools. I hope that Ministers will accept it, or at least agree to deal with the issue by framing their own proposals. We look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Amendment No. 341 is designed to provide more detail by introducing another paragraph to outline the specific circumstances in which an appeal panel can overrule an exclusion. It is intended to generate debate on what Ministers view as appropriate circumstances for such overruling and to generate a power to set out those circumstances in regulations, which would improve the Bill.

 
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Prepared 10 January 2002